Last week I had the privilege of being invited to a screening of a documentary feature called United Skates, which is now available to watch on HBO. I actually didn't pay attention to what exactly I was being invited to screen, but the friend that invited me knew I would be interested so I went, and I am so glad that I did. United Skates is an inspiring film about community, and a harsh reminder of the racism and marginalization of people of color in our country, especially that of the Black community. United Skates takes us into the world of roller skating in a way I am sure many of us have never known or experienced, and I can't believe that that is the case, because not only is it so fun and vibrant a culture, but this aspect of roller skating brings together everything we all want in a community--fun and safe spaces for families to come together, to be able to dance and express ourselves, and inspire one another.
The filmmakers Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown did a stupendous job and I really hope they turn this into a scripted feature. The documentary was beautifully shot, but more importantly they created a window into a world where a community and people are constantly being shut down and unheard. So, I want to share with you why I loved this film and why it's so important. I hope that you will get a chance to see this, or at least further look into what has happened with this world, because it goes beyond just roller skating.
1. "Roller Skating is to Black People, as Black Eyed Peas is to New Year's.
When I heard this line in the movie, it immediately stood out to me, because I thought, "What?" I had no idea! Roller skating has been a significant part of the Black community for generations. Over the decades they have taken roller skating to a level I have never seen. In the 80's and 90's when people were afraid of rap and hip hop, the most significant venues for rap and hip hop artists, became roller skating rinks. The love for skating has been passed down from generation to generation and created a unique bond across the country for many.
2. We are Always Fed the White Narrative First.
While I was watching this documentary, I immediately thought about the Ellen Paige movie that was done a few years ago about roller skating. Actually, it was about roller derby, but it still involves skating on roller skates. I never saw the movie, so I have no comments about that story or that film; but what this made me think about was how historically, we are only exposed to the "white version" of stories. The levels and skills the Black community has taken roller skating is so exciting and awesinspiring, why wouldn't anyone want to highlight this? Why would we let this culture die? How hasn't there been a movie made about this side of roller skating?
3. Blatant, Idiotic Racism
The documentary shows us how many roller rinks have found ways to keep black people out of their rinks under the guise of "safety rules." Safety is one thing, but it was pretty clear that many of the rules were put in place because white owners were scared of black people on wheels. It made me so angry. Are you really afraid of families having a good time, and skating around in circles for a few hours a night? It's like NASCAR--they're just going in circles...though with a few extra tricks. But these rules only came about after segregation. Black people have been fighting to skate since at least the 1920's, when some were beaten just because they wanted to have a little fun on four wheels. When rinks were forced to integrate, they would still try to find ways to segregate, by creating specific nights intended just for the black community, using names like "Sepia Night," or "Soul Night." Eventually, the name that stuck and is still used is "Adult Night." One of these days, I'm going to experience an "Adult Night." I mean, I think I'd be too scared to get on the rink, but oh my gosh--the talent, the skills, the dancing, the music, I wish I could skate like that! It's so freaking cool.
4. The Significance of Community.
The most important message you get out of this documentary is what roller skating means to the communities that not only enjoy and love them, but also depend on them. As we follow one roller skating family in LA throughout the documentary, we learn that roller skating literally keeps this family alive while other kids and neighbors are being shot in the street. At one point there were only two roller rinks left in LA that catered to the black community--one in Compton and one in central LA...the middle of Bloods and Crips territories, respectively. When the one in Compton closed, the gang leaders agreed that World on Wheels, the rink in central LA, would be neutral territory. It was the one place that Bloods and Crips would skate together in harmony. That is what roller skating means to this community--that is how important it is. In general, when you're a community that has been marginalized, anything that brings you together in a positive way is all the more important.
5. The Downside of Gentrification
I never thought about the downside to gentrification until this film. I always thought of it as "improving" communities by cleaning them up and trying to make them safeer, but this documentary opened my eyes up to a lot. In LA, you hear people say all the time, oh this neighborhood is gentrifying, and that neighborhood has gentrified. Often times that means you have more art, hipsters, and hipstery places to eat and meet. You also get new condos, and rent goes up. One of the major issues this documentary highlights is the closing down of SO many roller rinks across the country, and the consequences of that. On the one hand, you might think, well how many people still roller skate? However, when you see a community institution shut down because some big developers come into town and take over; but then you see the building they shut down continue to sit empty and abandoned, it makes you angry and wonder why? One of the rinks featured in this film was shut down, because developers wanted to come in and put in something that would generate more money than a roller rink. That roller rink remained empty and abandoned for 4 years. I'm not sure the status of it now; but again, it makes you wonder. It makes you wonder about the greed behind gentrification. Rent in LA is so outrageous, how can we even afford to shop in the new malls and whatever else people feel is "better" for the community? What are we doing to our communities, when we're not thinking about the actual needs of the people? Giant developers want to put in stores and malls so people can spend more money on things they don't need or can't afford, because the profit margins are higher. But is that really the better solution in the long wrong? With gentrification comes increased rent, which then pushes families out of the communities. What if we actually listened to people's needs and improved the community without forcing people out of their homes? Roller rinks are more than just a place to skate. For some people, it's the only place they can go to let, and have fun in a safe space. Is there not a way to clean up our cities while still taking care of the people and their needs?
6. Style is everything.
One more thing I love about this documentary and this story is that every city has their own skate style, and music to which they skate. There's a pride in each city for what they bring to the skating game; but I feel it also brings them all together in a unique way. They all come together, literally for giant national skate nights, for the love of skating and showing off their moves. As an Angeleno, I loved and got such a kick out of the fact that in LA it's all about your skates. People make skates out of all different kinds of shoes--Chucks, Timberlands, basketball shoes--and jazz them up with their own personality. I love it! It's so LA.
I hope many people get to see this film, and open their eyes to community needs. I hope especially, our community leaders do a better job of thinking about what their people actually need. Does a Walmart or strip mall really improve a neighborhood? Does creating more and more unaffordable housing really benefit the community? If roller rinks are struggling to stay open because they can no longer afford the rent, is there not a way to help rink owners make their businesses more viable while still serving the community?
Watch the trailer here, and check out the film on HBO.